Exploring the relationship between public relations academics and practitioners

Exploring the relationship between public relations academics and practitioners


In a letter to BledCom notable public relations theorist James E. Grunig explores the opportunity for collaboration between academics and practitioners. A workshop at BledCom on Saturday led by Sarah Hall, Jon White and myself, will explore practical ways of developing a community of practice in public relations.

Ahead of the session we invited contributions from academics, practitioners and teachers in the form of a letter to BledCom. We'll publish a collection of 21 letters on Wednesday.

James E. Grunig kindly offered this contribution.


By James E. Grunig, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

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I have had many good relationships with practitioners over the years. My first positive experience occurred in the 1970s when I worked as a consultant to the AT&T Public Relations Department to develop a plan for evaluating the company’s public relations programs. This relationship lasted for nearly five years. I was able to bring a theoretical perspective into the program AT&T was developing, and the AT&T practitioners brought practical questions into the discussion. As a result, the question of “will it work in practice” has been central to my research and teaching throughout my career.

My next major relationship with practitioners came during the nearly 20 years of work on the IABC Excellence research project. IABC practitioners proposed the initial research questions, and the members of my research team refined them and worked closely with a team of practitioners to design the research project. One of the team members, Fred Repper, was an experienced practitioner who brought an important applied perspective to the project. At each stage of the project, Fred would say “this is how this idea worked in my experience.” Throughout the project, members of the research team constantly interacted with the professionals on the IABC Research Foundation board.

A third successful relationship was my service on the (US) Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission. For many years, academics and practitioners have served jointly on this commission; and the result has been much improved standards for measurement and evaluation.

Throughout my teaching career, I also used professional clients as a basis for the research conducted by students in both undergraduate and graduate seminars. Practitioners suggested information they needed to know, the students and I interacted with them throughout the semester, together we designed the research, and at the end we met with the practitioners to report the results of our research and their implications for their practice. Practitioners, students, and professor all learned a great deal from each other through these projects.

I also had a productive relationship for many years with Pat Jackson of the Jackson, Jackson, & Wagner public relations firm. This included the exchange of many ideas, joint appearances at professional conferences, writing of an insert on research for Pat’s publication pr reporter, and joint work on an evaluation program for the Brookhaven National Laboratory (a US Department of Energy research facility). Pat was interested in theory as well as practice, and I was interested in practice as well as theory. The result was a productive relationship. I also have had similar productive relationships with Fraser Likely of Canada and Toni Muzi Falconi of Italy.

In both cases, the relationship has resulted in joint publications, presentations, and meetings with other practitioners.

I also worked as a research consultant for a number of clients over the years. In every case, I was able to conduct research that answered their questions about their programs and that also answered theoretical research questions that were important to me and that often led to publication in research journals.

Strong working research relationship

Each one of these relationships involved research of some kind. In each case, I was able to conduct research that answered important practical questions of practitioners. For a successful research partnership, however, I believe two things are necessary:

A practitioner with an open, inquiring mind who is not afraid to question what he or she does or is open to new ideas. I would call such a practitioner a research-minded practitioner. Such a practitioner also is open to theory, one who realizes that a theory is nothing more than a solution to a problem and not an esoteric, impractical idea. Thinking of my own theory of publics, this criterion requires an academic to know his or her public. A good relationship is possible with an actively communicating, problem-solving member of a practitioner public. It is not possible with members of a nonpublic or a public engaged in what I call routine habitual behavior. The latter types of publics don’t recognize any problems in their work and routinely and habitually do the same things for clients or their organizations day in and day out without thinking much about it.

An academic who can articulate and explain theoretical ideas in practical terms. I believe I have been successful in this way because of my background in science communication as well as in public relations. Practitioners can understand and appreciate theory, but it has to be explained in terms that are relevant to them.

Obstacles to a productive relationship

Most often, failures have resulted because practitioners only wanted confirmation of what they are already doing or what they believe. For example, many practitioners only want evaluative research if it confirms the value of what they already are doing. They don’t want evaluation that requires them to change or to do something new. Many practitioners also do not attempt to think theoretically. Research has little value unless it results in theory. Many academics also fail in this relationship because they consider themselves above practitioners and do not make an effort to explain their theories in practical terms.

Value in research

Do research (in the case of academics) and embrace research (in the case of practitioners). If academics do not conduct research of one kind or another, they have nothing to offer practitioners. In addition to having academic value, however, their research must produce theories that relate to problems experienced by practitioners. To embrace research, practitioners must open their minds to the value of theory and be willing to think abstractly. A good theory can solve many problems, so practitioners must be able and willing to think expansively. A good theory goes beyond simple everyday experiences. An abstract theory is most valuable because it offers solutions to many problems and is therefore economical for thinking.

Letters to BledCom: Towards a community of practice in public relations

Letters to BledCom: Towards a community of practice in public relations

Time for reflection, planning and healing

Time for reflection, planning and healing